(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has executed 48 people since the beginning of 2018, half of them for nonviolent drug crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Many more people convicted of drug crimes remain on death row following convictions by Saudi Arabia’s notoriously unfair criminal justice system.

Waleed al-Saqqar. 

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Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said in an interview with Time magazine on April 5, that the Saudi authorities have a plan to decrease the number of executions, but that they would not limit executions to people convicted of murder. Nearly all executions in Saudi Arabia that are not for murder are for non-violent drug crimes. The prince said the country would consider changing the penalty from death to life in prison in some cases, but not in murder cases.

“It’s bad enough that Saudi Arabia executes so many people, but many of them have not committed a violent crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Any plan to limit drug executions needs to include improvements to a justice system that doesn’t provide for fair trials.”

Saudi Arabia has carried out nearly 600 executions since the beginning of 2014, over 200 of them in drug cases. The vast majority of the remainder were for murder, but other offenses included rape, incest, terrorism, and “sorcery.”

In Saudi Arabia, death sentences for murder are usually based on the Islamic law principle qisas, or eye-for-an-eye retributive punishment, while judges hand down death sentences for drugs at their own discretion (the Islamic law principle ta’zir). Judges rely on a 1987 fatwa by the country’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars prescribing the death penalty for any “drug smuggler” who brings drugs into the country, as well as provisions of the 2005 Law on Combatting Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which prescribes the death penalty for drug smuggling. The law allows for mitigated sentences in limited circumstances.

International standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions stated that where used, the death penalty should be limited to cases in which a person is intentionally killed and not used to punish drug-related offenses.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which Saudi courts sentenced defendants to death following unfair trials. In one such case, a Saudi court sentenced a Jordanian man, Waleed al-Saqqar, to death in December 2014 for smuggling drugs across the Saudi border from Jordan in his truck.

The judgment following al-Saqqar’s trial reveals that the trial lasted only one day, and a source with direct knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that the entire trial lasted about five minutes. The source said that a judge asked al-Saqqar to confirm his identity and state whether the truck belonged to him, then issued the death sentence. Al-Saqqar did not have a defense lawyer.

The source said that the judge did not allow al-Saqqar a chance to explain the circumstances, which he viewed as a mitigating factor. The source said that in April 2013 al-Saqqar met a Saudi man at the Jordanian Free Zone near Zarqa city who offered to pay him 300,000 Saudi Riyals (US$80,000) to smuggle several bags of agricultural hormones to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi man said that his workers were urgently waiting for them and would need them before he could get permission from the Saudi Heath and Agricultural Ministries to legally import them. Al-Saqqar agreed to the arrangement.

On April 11, 2013, Saudi authorities stopped al-Saqqar after he entered Saudi Arabia from Jordan at the al-Haditha border crossing and searched the truck. According to the trial judgment, the authorities discovered 144,000 pills identified as captagon (fenethylline), a banned substance in Saudi Arabia. According to the official judgment al-Saqqar assisted Saudi authorities in an attempt to locate and apprehend the person inside Saudi Arabia responsible for receiving the drugs, but authorities were not able to apprehend him.

The source said that the case remains on appeal. The appeals court, the Saudi Supreme Court, and the Saudi royal court must approve the judgment before the sentence can be carried out. Al-Saqqar primarily is in Al-Qarrayat General Prison in northern Saudi Arabia.

In another case, a Pakistani man, Safdar Iqbal, told Justice Project Pakistan in December 2015 that men affiliated with the Pakistani agency that gave him his Saudi visa invaded his Karachi hotel room. He said the men forced him to swallow heroin capsules to smuggle into Saudi Arabia, beating him with guns and threatening to kill him and his family.

Saudi authorities apprehended him in February 2011 when he landed at Dammam’s King Fahd International Airport. He said that a court convicted him after four hearings, and that he did not dispute a 15-year sentence because it was better than the death penalty. Later, however, officials informed him that an appeals court had increased his sentence to death. Iqbal did not have a defense lawyer and said that the judges did not attempt to investigate his claim that he was coerced to smuggle the pills. He was held in Dammam prison and executed on October 18, 2017.

Human Rights Watch has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that makes it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases. In cases Human Rights Watch has analyzed, authorities did not always inform suspects of the charges against them or allow them access to evidence, even after trial sessions began.

Authorities generally did not allow lawyers to assist suspects during interrogation and often impeded them from examining witnesses and presenting evidence at trial. The problems were compounded for non-Arabic speaking foreigners, who in the absence of a lawyer face overwhelming obstacles to understanding court procedures and submitting defense documents.

The Death Penalty Worldwide Database, which collects information on executions across the globe, shows that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world and applies the death penalty to a range of offenses that do not constitute “most serious crimes,” including drug offenses, adultery, sorcery, and apostasy. Saudi Arabia trails only Iran in the Middle East in in the number of its executions.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

In 2013, following similar resolutions in 2007, 2008, and 2010, the UN General Assembly called on countries to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed, all with the view toward its eventual abolition. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also called on countries to abolish the death penalty.